A few of the other students chorused, not quite as one, "G'night!" as she headed for the door. She reached for the grip but another hand got there before hers. "You're heading back towards Northwest 18, aren't you?"
"Mmm-hmm." She looked up to see another woman wearing the same age and mostly the same fashion as herself. The colors this year were emerald green and black, with the men wearing their hair short. Gleaming black skullcaps were in fashion, too, but she didn't care quite that much. The other girl had free hair and it seemed to be better treated than her own.
"Mind if I walk with you?" The other girl reached behind her collar and pulled over her head a hood that solidified as it billowed about her head. Little green lights around the rim winked to indicate that microtractors were operating.
"It's a free planet."
"Ranga. It's my name." The other woman held out her hand.
"Are you okay, Barbara?"
"What does it matter?"
"It matters a lot," Ranga said. "Either you're headed up or down. People don't stay where they are. If you're headed down, I... dunno. I might have a few words of wisdom."
Barbara didn't respond. It wasn't worth the effort. "C'mon."
They headed out into the rain. "You don't have active defense on that, do you?" Ranga said.
Barbara shook her head as she pulled her hood over her head. "I can't afford it."
"I'm broke. Really broke. I have a dining table."
"So do I, but I can still afford a decent raincoat," Ranga said.
Barbara sighed. She walked back to her flat through the incessant rain of Covenant. It was only about two kilometers or so, and Ranga followed her without saying anything further. As they walked deeper into the city the streetlights became fewer but brighter, tall towers of incandescence carving vast cones of light down onto dull asphalt. People scuttled through these zones of illumination with their heads down against the rain. "This is my place," Barbara said.
Ranga looked up at the unwelcoming black box, its flat face unreflective in the light of neighboring streetlights. "You live here? You really are broke if you're taking up a transient studio room."
Barbara shrugged. "I had to sit somewhere while I got back on my feet. Thanks for coming with me, Ranga." That was, she remembered, the formula for getting rid of someone.
"You're welcome. See you in school tomorrow?"
"Huh? Yeah." Ranga waved and walked off into the rain. Barbara felt better as the figure disappeared into the veil of droplets and dark, then scowled at nobody and cursed herself for being so insensitive to someone who as just trying to help her. Ranga hadn't deserved that kind of treatment. She had only been reaching out, one human being to another. Barbara didn't know what she had done to deserve reaching. With nothing to give Barbara only incurred debt.
Barbara walked up the stairs to her flat. The door recognized her and let her in, and she threw her bag onto the floor and sighed. The room was the same as it had always been: dark brown floors and walls, a mattress made of some static material, and a small kitchen with a dining table. She reached for the dining table and looked at what had grown there recently. She ripped off a stalk of something she knew had sugar in it and stuck one end into her mouth.
The bland taste of dining table provision made her cough and she spat it out into the sink. "I'm sick of this crap," she growled as she fished the stalk out of the sink and tossed it back onto the table. Eventually the table would re-absorb it and convert it into something else equally edible and equally tasteless. The table was a giant combination of fungus, vegetation and nanochal. What it produced was always edible but not very palatable. Hooked into the flat's feed and water lines it produced enough food for one or two individuals depending upon how heavily the table was harvested.
She looked at her chit and saw that she had enough to go out. At least once. Maybe even twice. Where had all those yen come from, anyway? She headed out again, down the street to a fast-food place. They advertised that they used farm-grown food, heirloom genetics, and real meat grown cruelty-free. She had a sandwich, a platter between two flat, round pieces of bread. She sighed with satisfaction as she bit into the sandwich, then wolfed it down as the flavor flowed over her tongue. She followed it with a sugary, fizzy drink that made her feel better. There was so much protein and carbohydrates in the meal that she even felt a bit dizzy afterward.
Feeling tired but better, wondering if there was even a smile on her face, she walked back towards the intimidating black bulk of her complex. The rain still bothered her, and every step of the way it felt as if gravity were getting stronger, pulling at her bulk. She really ought to lose some weight, her thighs were starting to rub together as she walked. She dodged a landspeeder going by as she crossed the street.
She passed by the "park", if it could be called that, between her building and the next. She had never seen anyone in it. It had always been just a grey jumble of stones. She wondered if, should the day ever come when Covenant's rain stopped, people would remember that it was here and they were supposed to walk in it. She looked into it tonight. In the street lights, it was just another collection of shapes, all right angles softened in the rain. But under a squared arch of stone she saw a figure, a shape very much like a person, sitting, knees to its chest, and rocking slowly.
On Covenant, there was enough of a dole that everyone had a place to live. There was no such thing as homelessness here. The AIs made sure of that. Illness would have brought an ambulance. Mental illness was a different matter, but usually there were ways to keep the mentally ill off the streets. Curiosity got the better of her and she entered the park. She had half-expected some kind of AI-induced illusion of chirping birds and shining sunlight, but it was still the same park it had seemed from the outside. She walked up to the figure. "Hey."
The figure didn't move. "Hey!" she shouted. "Look at me!"
The head looked up out of a cloth hood that was as static as the stones. It was male, and human, and youthful. It looked like a boy's face, pale with white hair. "What are you doing here?" she asked. The figure didn't answer. "Do you have someplace to go?"
He still didn't speak. Barbara got angry. Here she was trying to do what Ranga had tried to do for her and she was getting the same reaction. "Dammit, answer me. Do you have someplace to go?"
He shook his head. "You can't stay out here all night," she said. He looked away again, ignoring her. "AIs damnit! Come on. Come with me."
He looked up with her, and his expression was different. He looked expectant. "Come with me," she repeated. He rose stiffly and Barbara was surprised to find that he was short, shorter even than she, and she wasn't tall herself. She blinked against the rain falling into her eyes and turned away. "Come on."
She led the way back to her flat, let him inside. After closing the door, she turned to look at him. "What were you doing out there?"
"Waiting," he said. His voice was pleasant, masculine in a gravelly way, but not dramatically deep.
He shrugged. "Whatever happened next." He smiled as he said it, but then he stood there, looking at her, as if she expected something.
"What do you want?" she asked him.
"You told me to follow you. You brought me in here."
"Here." She threw a towel in his direction. "Dry your hair off." He did as she said. She leaned against the one table she had in her front of the room, the one that held her terminal, and said, "What's your name?"
"Just Ren," he agreed. "What's yours?"
"Barbara Sonnik," she said. "Look, uh, in the morning we'll find you something to do, okay? I just didn't want you out in the rain all night like that." She looked at the clock on the terminal display. "I don't have a place for you to sleep except the couch. Is that okay?"
He nodded. "I'll be fine with that." Barbara had the weird impression that he was actually more than just fine, that he was happy.
He tossed off the static poncho. His clothes underneath were dry, but only just; there were spots of wetness on his tight-fitting outfit about his knees and ankles and over his shoulders. He was, as human figures go, handsome in a boyish sort of way-- very muscular, very beautiful to look at, with the solid thighs of an athlete. So very different from her. His body was offset by soft, sad eyes and wild white hair. He lay down on the couch, crossed his hands over his chest with fingers intertwined, and fell asleep.
She had not looked at a man this way in a long time, and she resolved not to start now. She touched the terminal. "Loki?"
"Here as always, Miss Sonnik."
"I have a visitor."
"I see that."
"Just letting you know."
"I'll keep tabs," Loki assured her.
She went to her bed and, without much emotion, stripped down to her underwear, then crawled between the covers. The bed's gel-filled mattress rocked briefly as she settled into its form-moulding comfort. She touched the light, and it went out.
She awoke to a smell she had not encountered in months. It was sweet and filling and she could just make out the edges of something heavy. "Hey! What are you doing?"
"Making breakfast." Ren was still in her flat, still dressed in a tight-fitting pair of white pants and a white t-shirt. He was standing in the corner of the studio that had been described as the kitchen. He pointed to the little portable burner she had bought months ago in a strange quest to teach herself how to cook. She had never gotten anywhere with it. "I had a few creds left, so I bought some of the ingredients while you were asleep. I also took some stuff off your dining table, added some salt and butter." He showed her a stack of what looked like very thin pancakes and another stack of some vegetable things held together with... what? She didn't know. "It was the least I could do after you took me in last night."
She stared at him. She wanted him out of her flat. This was Covenant, the rain was always coming down, but now it was day and he could make his way into the city. She was also hungry and what he offered her looked delicious. "Okay," she growled. She was about to say more when someone knocked on the door.
She threw the door open. "What?"
"I said I'd come by and collect you for school. What's that smell?" She looked over Barbara's shoulder. "Oh, I see why you were so impatient last night."
"It's not like that," Barbara said. "I found him on the street. He needed a place to get out of the rain."
"He followed you home and now you want to keep him?" Ranga said.
"No! It's not like that. I mean, he slept on the couch. I just..."
"Is that a friend of yours, Miss Sonnik? I can make enough for three." Ren was already reaching for a small rectangular box that Barbara recognized as holding eggs.
Barbara turned her head and muttered under her breath, "Dammit, this is my place." She looked up. "Okay, Ranga. Come on in."
Ranga stepped in and looked around. "It's a very nice space," she said. "Very, um, brown."
"It's dingy. It's small. But it's mine," Barbara said. She remembered her manners briefly. "Anyway, Ranga, this is Ren. Ren, this is Ranga, an acquaintance of mine from school."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Ranga," Ren said.
"It's Nyaki. Ranga Nyaki." She said it with the uplift trill of someone trying to keep the traditions of southeast Asia alive. "And it's..."
"Ren. Just Ren." The white-haired young man smiled as he said it. He turned to Barbara. "Crepes and hashed dining table browns. I hope that's acceptable."
"Oh, it sounds delicious," Ranga said.
Barbara watched the exchange with a growing sense of hopelessness as she got dressed. She had lost control of her own personal space. She wanted it back. When Ren put the plate in her lap, she looked at what was offered there with suspicion, but finally ate.
It was hard to deny that the food was delicious. It was better even than the mass-produced meal she had had the night before. She had not eaten anything made in a small, personal kitchen in a long time, and there something wonderful about food cooked that way. The crepes melted in her mouth. "How did you make dining table stuff taste this good?"
Ren grinned. "Anything tastes good deep fat fried in butter, salted and herbed. Even stuff off the dining table."
"We'd better get going," Ranga said. Barbara didn't want to move. She hadn't felt this good, or quite so satisfyingly filled, in months. "It was nice to meet you, Ren."
"It was a pleasure meeting you, Miss Nyaki."
"It was a pleasure meeting you, Miss Ranga," he said.
She laughed. "No, it's just Ranga. Oh, never mind. Come on, Barbara. You don't want to be late for class, do you?"
Barbara glanced back at the flat. "I'll clean up," Ren said. Ranga was already standing and slinging a bag over her shoulder, and Barbara felt she should follow suit. It wasn't until they were out the door and a block away that she realized she had forgotten to get Ren and Loki introduced and to get the stranger out of her house.
"Walk you home again?" Ranga again.
Barbara said, "Why are you doing this?"
"Because... Because you seemed so lonely yesterday. Always quiet and in your own world. And I live in the same direction as you do. It's always better if you walk with a partner. You never know. Covenant is a primitive world by lots of standards. It's not as if we have media baubles and aibots hanging out on every street corner, watching us for our own good. Wouldn't it just lick to live on Pendor or Discovery or someplace like that, in some kind of angelnet?"
"I was born on Discovery."
"There, see?" Ranga said. "And you came here."
"I was just trying to get away from my parents."
"And a planet that let them know where you were all the time, whether you wanted them to or not, I bet."
Barbara conceded the point with a nod. She hadn't wanted to talk about herself or her parents, but there was no escaping the conversation. She knew what Ranga was trying to do, and now turning Ranga away would be rude. She wasn't to the point of accepting charity and she wouldn't admit it, but Ranga was trying for something else. Something for which Barbara had had no energy.
She sighed. "Come on."
"Will Ren be there?"
"I hope not," Barbara said. "Like I said, I just met him last night and wanted to give him a dry place."
The walked through the incessant rain until they reached the cube that contained Barbara's flat. She palmed the lock and the door opened.
Barbara noticed first that the heavy, leaden smell that had clung persistently to every wall was missing, and instead the air was bright and clean. The floor had been swept and all of the rubbish that had collected around the trash can had disappeared. Her bed didn't look grimy.
And there was Ren, standing in front one of the cubes that were her "kitchen." It was the stove, a device she had never learned how to use except for reheating food, and he had a pot on it, a shoddy-looking thing that she recognized from the cupboard next to the stove. It had been here when she had arrived. There was a smell in the air that made her instantly hungry. She hadn't smelled anything quite like it since he had left her home. "Hi!" he said as he approached. "I made soup. It's one of the things that you can make usefully with a dining table."
She looked at the bowl, then at Ren. He had such a pretty face it tugged at her. She tried to be mad; she wanted to have her own space. She couldn't convince herself to be mad. Whatever he had in his hand disarmed her and made her feel hungry.
She made an uncharitable swipe at the bowl, and he surrendered it. She tasted it, and then began scarfing down the contents as if she hadn't eaten anything so delicious in weeks. Only yesterday she had eaten at a restaurant, but this was... "This came off the dining table?"
"You can do a few things with a dining table if you know what you're doing," Ren said. "I do. I used to be a starship cook. The recycling plants on most of the smaller ships are nothing more than glorified dining tables, or maybe it's the other way around." He cocked a finger under his chin. "Maybe we should say that dining tables are a refinement of what starship recycling centers do. After all, a recycling center expects there to be someone skilled at using it on the ship." He picked up his own bowl, which had considerably less. "A dining table assumes that the people using will usually just graze off it. Oh, hello again, Ranga. Barbara, I have enough to offer Ranga some. Would you like that?"
Would she... ? She had no idea. She finally nodded, if only to try and make up for the way she had slighted Ranga the night before. Ren smiled and put out another bowlful for Ranga, who tried it. "It's wonderful," she finally said after her third mouthful, making Ren smile.
Barbara ate slowly, then watched as Ren and Ranga ate theirs. Finally, Ranga made her goodbyes, explaining that she had friends she was going to meet later. She invited Barbara and Ren, but Barbara declined. So did Ren. "Okay, then. Later."
When the door closed, Barbara turned on Ren. "Look, I don't know who you are or what you're doing here, but..."
"Whoa, whoa," Ren said. "I'm just a spacer between jobs here. I'm grateful for a dry place on this planet that never dries out. I figured I could show my gratitude by making you a few decent meals, since I can."
"This is my house."
Ren glanced around. "Actually, it's Loki's. He's just letting you use it because you don't have any alternative. It's in his nature to provide." He stopped for a second, looked as if he might have more to say, but finally just stood quietly.
Barbara stared at him. "You..."
"Look, I'm stuck on this rock for... well, a while." He sighed. "I guess I'll be leaving."
"Where will you go?"
"I'll ask Loki. Hey, AI, got any spaces?"
"There's one in this building, just down the hall, if you like," the AI said in his monotone voice. "If you like, I can have it prepared for you tomorrow morning."
"Please," Ren said. "It was nice to meet you, Barbara. Since we'll be neighbors, maybe I'll see you again from time to time."
"Wait," Barbara said. "Where will you go tonight?"
"I don't know," Ren said. "I guess I could just camp out in the hallway until the maintenance people arrive." He took three steps towards the door.
"Look, why don't you stay here until tomorrow?"
Ren stared for a moment. "If you're okay with that."
Barbara nodded. He sat down on her ragged couch again and said, "I'm sorry if I've become such a bother to you."
Barbara wanted to snap at him, but she couldn't find the will to do so. She wanted him out her life, just as much as she wanted Ranga to leave her alone, but she couldn't blame them for trying. At least they didn't want her to join a religious cult or some transhumanist affinity group. She could live with just being.
At least, she believed so.
For the first time since Ren had arrived, she had a chance to think about Ren, about the way he looked. "You don't look like a spacer."
"What do you expect spacers to look like?" Ren asked.
"Bigger. Muscley." She gestured towards the big monitor she had on the wall, the one connected to the terminal. "Like the guys on Rock Jocks."
Ren laughed. "I watched that when I landed. It's so fake. Spacers come in all shapes and sizes, but the reality is that the smaller we are, the more of the ship is left for supplies and hardware. There are a lot of Musteline spacers, and only a few Dragons."
"You didn't eat very much."
"I don't, usually," he said.
They were running out of things to talk about, and Barbara kept looking at him and trying to push out of her mind the idea that she hadn't had anyone in her bed since she had moved to Discovery. Ren, for his part, seemed infinitely patient, as if there weren't anything better for him to do than let the time pass. She knew that there was a behavioral mod for that, one that suppressed the normal human restlessness, sometimes even deactivating it completely, but it didn't seem like the kind of thing that a spacer would have. Or maybe it was. They spent a lot of time in the middle of space, doing... what? "What kind of spacer were you?"
"Slowboat," he said. She stared at him with surprise. Slowboats were sublight interstellar vessels. If you took one, you were committed to a trip as long as a century just to get from one star to another. A trip from Terra to Pendor took only a day or so with a proper FTL drive, but without one would take almost ten years. She couldn't imagine how long it had taken Ren to make it to Covenant. "It was something my crewmates preferred."
"But not you?" she said.
Ren shrugged. "I went where circumstances took me. It's not as if we have to worry about getting old and dying anymore. Slowboats have an honesty to them. We know the whole time that we haven't left the universe in which we live. And it was exciting sometimes. We had a hydrogen tank blowout somewhere around year seventeen. I even got a scar." He started to pull up his shirt and before Barbara could stop him he was showing off a ragged white line that ran around his hip and across his stomach almost to his navel. "I guess that's not very attractive, don't you think?"
Barbara had never seen a scar before. She lived in a world where such things were deleted from the body as a matter of course. "Why would you keep that?"
"Why not? I haven't had time to have it removed and maybe I'll keep it. It was a great adventure. I was nearly thrown into space. I got a huge dose of radiation poisoning. I survived. Maybe someday I'll tell future generations about the experience." She wanted to get closer and see it. "I've got a smaller one here." He tugged on the neck of his t-shirt and started to pull it down to show her something on his shoulder. She stepped closer to look, and as she drew closer to him she felt a strange kind of growing acceptance. Desire. Ren had fed her and talked to her, and although that had made her mad it was also the first time in a long time she had been in a room with a man.
She reached out and touched the scar. Ren smiled up at her. "You have nice hands."
"Do I?" she asked.
She laughed at him. Okay, she'd made her decision and she was going to go through with it. With Ren. "Come here," she said, and she kissed him.
Ren surprised her again by being softer and yet... she couldn't put her hand on it. Better than she was at this kissing thing. As if he'd been practicing for most of his life to kiss, did research into kissing, and thought a lot about how to do it best. His hands swept around her waist and settled on her well-padded hips. She felt herself jerk away at his touch before her resolve returned. "You're not used to this, are you?" he said.
"Enough," she said. "Used to it enough. I should be. I did this a lot back when I was on Discovery."
"Whenever you wanted?"
"Yeah," she said. "And now I want you."
"You can have me," Ren said. She pulled at his arm and dragged him to the bed. The ancient mattress made an explosive sound as they landed on it. She crushed her mouth to his, trying to suck out of him every last drag of what she could from him. She wanted Ren's body and she could barely hold back from that want. It gripped her like the most demanding memory, making her want him even more. Ren's neck was long for a man's, she thought, even as she descended upon it to leave as powerful a bruise as she could make, sucking upon him until he began to groan with the pain she made.
He pushed her over just long enough to pull the tight t-shirt off his torso, revealing a body both pale and almost adolescently perfect, the kind of torso that young men reveled in showing off, knowing that they might never have it again without intervention. Ren's muscles actually looked natural, but she knew that any man could have that if he had time and money enough. Starships had enough of both.
Ren's mouth took its revenge on her throat, but he was gentler. She could feel his cock against her thigh and she craved him all the more for it. His mouth was now between her breasts, probing at the V of her blouse. "Move," she said. He did, long enough to let her undress herself. He joined her, and the two of them tumbled back onto the bed, warm bodies momentarily coalescing into a vortex of pleasure, heat defying the cold rain outside her windows, bright pleasure opposed to the grim reality of her flat.
She opened her thighs for him, inviting him in for his moment, but he shook his head. "Oh, no," he said. "Not so fast." His mouth descended on her thighs, kissed his way from her knees up to her mound, each little touch and stroke a shock affirming her choice to fuck him, to have him. He laughed softly as his mouth surrounded her richly furred cunt. She moaned her reply. The men she had always found in the past had never wanted to kiss her down there, or if they did they begrudged it to her and demanded something else in return. She hoped Ren wasn't like that, and he didn't seem to be. Instead, he lapped at her cunt like a cat gone three days without water. His tongue pressed so insistently against her clit that she thought she might explode. "Lighter!" she squealed, and he did as she asked.
Barbara didn't think she would last long under his expert touch. In moments, she was coming, climaxing against his lips. She flowed copiously into his mouth, embarrassed by the amount she let loose but Ren just kept his head where it was and lapped her up. He was so like a cat, in so many ways.
"You're very wet," he said, lifting his head. He grabbed the t-shirt he had been wearing and wiped his chin. "Now, Miss Barbara, would you--"
"Talk too much," she gasped, unable to get enough air for more. "Fuck me!"
"Of course," he said, and he slipped between her thighs, then slipped his dick into her waiting cunt. She spasmed around it, groaning. "Oh yes!"
"You're sweet," he said gently as he began a slow, careful fuck. It was unlike anything she had experienced in her life. Ren actually seemed to be treating her well. He acted like he cared. He had cooked for her, cleaned her home, and now he acted like he was going to fuck her for her benefit, not his own. It was so unbelievable Barbara almost couldn't hold on to her thoughts. Ren's cock was filling her, emptying her, filling her again, never stopping and never holding back, and she knew that she was going to come. He reached down and kissed her throat again, his weight was on her chest, his strong arms were about her in the most wonderful embrace she'd had in a decade, and she was coming, coming, crying, tears coursing down her cheeks with shameful admission.
She gulped for air and control as he held himself up, looking down at her. "Barbara?"
"Get out," she said.
"What?" he said.
"Get out! Get your clothes and get out of my flat and don't come back! I don't want you here! I never wanted you here! Get out of my life!" She curled up in the fetal position, buffeted by the war of shame and rage. He had made her vulnerable in her own home and held up a mirror to her own miserable life. "Get out of here!" she shrieked.
Never before had she seen eyes so terribly distraught, so completely aware of failure. "Okay, I'll leave," he said sadly. "I'll go." He pulled on his t-shirt, pants, and boots, which closed up around his ankles. He didn't even look back as he closed the door quietly behind him. Barbara lay on her bed, the spent evidence of lovemaking surrounding her, and she cried in celebration of her terrible victory. Once again, her home, her life, were hers.
"I really screwed that one up, neh?" Ren said, looking at a streetlight outside Barbara's apartment. The rain was coming down hard once more, as it often did shortly after the fall of full night, and it soaked his hair and his clothes, but Ren ignored most of it. Rain didn't bother him.
"You did the best you could," the streetlight said. Covenant was not angelnetted; to talk to an AI meant finding a place where the AI could talk to you. Fortunately, Loki was on its way to complete AI ubiquity, and almost any piece of public infrastructure could provide that communication. "It was an interesting experiment."
"Maybe." Ren started walking away. Successive streetlights would continue the conversation. "You have your work cut out for you."
"I'm sorry about your loss," Loki said from the streetlight at 6th and Megha. "I was hoping this would give you as much of a chance as I wanted to give Barbara."
"Eh, I'm recovering, neh?" Ren said. "Her place was quite the sty."
"That whole part of the city is. Other cities on Covenant have similar districts, although that's the largest," Loki said. "And sties make pigs. Barbara has simply never been exposed to the idea that she could improve her life. Her parents were, but somehow they neglected to transmit that message to Barbara. It happens with frightening regularity. I am hopeful, always, that this experience will make her aware of her misery and seek improvements, but I am not too hopeful. Too often, her variety of spiritual impoverishment comes with the belief that moving up is so hard as to be impossible, or not difficult but the province of luck and so impossible."
Ren took a deep breath, then exhaled on long sigh. "Do you think she'll look for me?"
"Anything is possible," Loki said. "But I would not organize my life around such possibilities. There's an Interstellar Crew Guild at Tune and 9th. That seems as good a place as any to park your frame."
Ren nodded and set off through the rain.